Hi! Recently, we’ve been talking about a new survey done by LifeWay about personal evangelism. Though the study didn’t seem very credible or rigorous, it sure got evangelicals talking! Today, we’ll look at why evangelicals don’t want to evangelize. Their reasons–and they have many–play a hand in the ultimate fate of their religion.
Everyone, Meet Teen Cas.
When I was 16, I briefly joined the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I had always been an intensely spiritual child. Well, that urge exploded out of me that year!
Within the year, though, I ended up in Pentecostalism. Later, we’ll devote some time to examining how that happened. For now, I’ll just say that a combination of terror and my own desire to find Original Christianity (as I imagined it existed) led me in that direction. By the summer of my 17th year, I was a committed member of what, at the time, represented the most wingnutty of all wingnut Christian sects around my area.
Most of all, I want you to know that I believed. Heart and soul, body and mind, beyond everything, above all else, I believed.
Who knows. Maybe that was the reason I deconverted to begin with: I took Christianity exactly as seriously as my trusted adults told me to take it.
In high school, my new fervor immediately caused me problems.
On the one hand, I believed with the white-hot ferocity and unalloyed purity of a young zealot.
But on the other, I ached to fit in and make friends. I wanted that typical high school experience that I saw everyone else having all around me: dating, silly high-school clubs, trips, dances, friends, clothes and makeup, and all the rest of it. And I had it, too, right up until I converted to Pentecostalism. Eventually, I became an outcast in my social groups.
Now I can look back and see that my religious leaders intentionally made our group so weird that none of us could fit into regular secular groups. We had to rely on each other for social interaction. As a result, we built very tight bonds with each other–within cliques within churches. Those bonds made it even harder to question the group’s ideology, much less reject it. And with every passing month we just got weirder–which meant that re-entering the real world became that much more difficult.
And I knew that, at some level.
I knew that every single attempt I made to win souls resulted in me getting pushed a little further away from others outside my group. I hated it.
But I hated even more the guilt I felt over not trying hard enough to save their souls.
Overcoming the Christian Bubble.
I struggled greatly with evangelism in part because who actually even needed what I had to offer? Until college, I didn’t even know any non-Christians!
Even in high school, before I learned to temper my prayers and re-set my expectations, I figured out quickly that my friends had no interest whatsoever in the AMAZING CHURCH I HAD JOINED. Literally everybody I knew in high school was already Christian. Maybe they weren’t the correct kind of Christian, but they knew the drill already. Thus, they rejected my sales attempts out of hand.
Today, I see Christians doing the exact same thing nowadays that we did back then: endlessly trying to poach Christians from competing churches with similar doctrinal stances. Of course, one great way to successfully poach someone is to offer them better perks or more opportunities at the new church–which means megachurches did a lot, as in a lot a lot, of poaching! But that option was usually off-limits to small or cash-poor churches.
Otherwise, someone could try to sell them on how totally hardcore their own church was, but that took doing and could backfire quickly if a visit didn’t confirm that salesperson’s assurance.
So that meant going outside of the Christian bubble–that insular world Christians build for themselves specifically to keep the outside world from wrecking their fantasies. Once outside of their usual comfort zone, Christians can seek new people to evangelize. But there, my peers and I usually failed even harder.
On the few occasions when Christians push past their discomfort to enter an environment full of strangers, they lack any kind of personal connection to those folks–and their soulwinning attempts generally bomb even harder than usual.
Overcoming Social Norms.
Back then, most of us knew how to maintain basic communication with others. Just as most folks–of all religions–can, we already knew how to strike up and hold casual conversations. We also already knew how to communicate a recommendation about something we liked, request and receive information, and state preferences and dislikes.
But evangelism stymied my peers and I all the same.
Essentially, evangelism functions as an in-your-face, one-sided, interruption-based marketing tactic. In attempting evangelism, Christians demand that targets stop and endure an unwanted, unrequested sales pitch. Then, they demand that their targets make a major life change based on information most folks find supremely uncompelling.
If the targets refuse the sales pitch, they cannot count on the salespeople to drop all further attempts. Chances are, the Christians will simply wait for another opportunity to try again–perhaps when their targets face a huge personal crisis or setback and are at their most vulnerable. They’re like the villains in horror movies–they just won’t go away.
Yeah. I could totally understand even then why people didn’t like evangelists.
And like many Christians today, I didn’t want to annoy and harass people.
We talk about how multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) destroy friendships and family bonds. If anything, religious sales pitches wreak even more damage–to both ends of the equation. That’s because Christians have never figured out how to sell their Jesus-product gracefully, lovingly, and UM-blee (“humbly” — see endnote).
Instead, Christians sell their religion like they feel entitled to a sale, like they could do anything short of physically abusing their marks (and perhaps even then) and still make the sale.
Overcoming Poor Preparation.
Even if a Christian pushes past all those barriers to try to sell Christianity, their leaders’ poor preparation fails them utterly. That was me too. And it is Christians today still.
I can categorically state with full confidence that absolutely nothing Christian leaders today suggest for their flocks works. None of it allows them to make an evangelism pitch, much less to make one gracefully and successfully. If anything, the “training” that aspiring soulwinners receive sets them up for failure.
At best, this faux-training just psyches up some of the flocks. The first time they actually try to use what they’ve learned, they will go down in flames.
And that’s how it’s always been, just like all the other stuff I’ve named here today.
Though back then I knew little about evangelism-minded apologetics and nothing whatsoever about Ray Comfort-style “Way of the Master” videos and books, we often learned tips, suggested scripts, and techniques for evangelism. The idea was that we could use these ideas to try to open and close what Baptists today call a gospel conversation.
Of course, not one bit of anything I learned on that topic ever actually worked.
I used to be just astonished at all these obviously fictionalized accounts I kept hearing about how some Christian just bumped into some random non-Christian and successfully evangelized them. But all the Christians around me ate that stuff up with a big spoon–
–Until they actually tried it. And that, too, is still how things roll today.
As we did back then, today’s Christians will probably blame their failures on themselves. They’ll still think their shoddy instructions work exactly as the person shilling them claims they do, but that they just can’t properly execute the techniques.
Kits, Cats, Sacks, and Wives.
I’ve listed a lot of factors making it difficult for me to evangelize.
Despite all of those obstacles, I tried to evangelize anyway. Of course I did. As I’ve said, I was panicked and horrified at the idea of my loved ones going to Hell. I constantly kept an eye and ear open for an opportunity to help my supposedly-omnipotent god snatch one more soul away from the Abyss.
I simply never succeeded at it, is all.
In fact, nobody I knew ever did.
Not even Biff made a single sale. Sometimes, we might have a productive sales-oriented conversation. Those would end on what we thought was a hopeful note and then go nowhere else. Very, very occasionally we persuaded someone to visit our church. I don’t remember anybody making a second one. Once or twice, Biff talked someone (like our friend Scott, or James, the guy who wanted to run the PRAYER WARRIORS FOR JESUS campus group) into getting baptized.
My Pentecostal peer group tried to poach many dozens of already-believing Christians in denominations similar to ours. As a result, many of them visited our church. Not one of them switched over, though.
Those are the successes I remember after eight years in Pentecostalism. My guilt and shame over my failure only ended with deconversion.
YAY TEAM JESUS.
The Big, Big Problem.
Looming over everything I’ve discussed today was one more huge problem–a systemic one built into Christianity’s entire ideology from the beginning. That we’ll have to look at next time, because seriously, it’s big. For now, I’ll just say that Christian leaders themselves, as much as they might be panicking over the flocks’ lack of sales attempts, can’t ultimately do too much to force the flocks into line.
Christian leaders must be careful about making excessive demands. Some leaders lock down such authoritarian groups that they can groom them into doing almost anything. However, most can only dream about that kind of control. Just as their god apparently feared the repercussions of commanding his pet Hebrews not to keep slaves, today’s Christian leaders fear that their grip on power might unravel before their eyes if they get too ambitious with their orders.
They know they need laypeople out there and evangelizing. But I don’t see that happening. The same problems I had as a Christian still exist today–if not in worse form.
So… for real this time: YAY TEAM HUMANITY!
NEXT UP: The systemic obstacle(s) facing Christian leaders who want their followers to evangelize more often. On Saturday, we have a Super Special lined up, and then on Monday a Lord Snow Presides. On Tuesday, we’ll look at a promise evangelists make that gets broken constantly, regularly, and egregiously by Christians themselves. See you soon!
About UM-blee: I used to belong to a Pentecostal church in Houston. One of the suburbs of Houston is called Humble. It’s pronounced “UM-bull.” So somehow my church group decided that literally every permutation of the regular word “humble” had to drop the “h” at the beginning. So UM-blee, UM-bull, UM-bull-ness, etc. There is your day’s lesson in Extremely Context-Specific Christianese! (Back to the post!)
PS: Will someone please let me know if they prefer numerical footnotes or directions like I’ve been experimenting with in the past couple of posts? Either is fine with me. I just want to make these as easy as possible for y’all to navigate. It is totally okay with me, whatever you decide you prefer.
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